Can maths be beautiful?

You might not think of maths as especially beautiful, but scientists have found that the sight of an elegant equation activates the same part of the brain as a beautiful piece of art of music.

13th February 2014
Can maths be beautiful? (iStock)

You might not think of maths as especially beautiful, but scientists have found that the sight of an elegant equation activates the same part of the brain as a beautiful piece of art of music.

Researchers in the UK asked 15 mathematicians to rate a selection of equations on a scale from -5 (ugly) to +5 (beautiful) and then have their brains scanned as they viewed the formula.

The scans showed that the more beautiful the formulae were perceived to be, the greater the amount of activity in their medial orbitofrontal cortex – the region of the brain associated with musical and artistic beauty.

"To many of us, mathematical formulae appear dry and inaccessible, but to a mathematician an equation can embody the quintessence of beauty,” says Professor Semir Zeki from the Wellcome Department of Neurobiology at University College London. “The beauty of a formula may result from simplicity, symmetry, elegance or the expression of an immutable truth. For Plato, the abstract quality of mathematics expressed the ultimate pinnacle of beauty."

According to the participants, the most beautiful equations included the Pythagorean identity and the Euler identity, which links five fundamental mathematical constants:

 

The ugliest equations, meanwhile, included Riemann's functional equation:

We shudder just looking at it…

 


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